Humankind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality TV

Kate Aurthur was transfixed by “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills:

Critics I respect wanted Bravo to axe the entire season before it even aired, and others were repulsed throughout its run. I’ve felt the opposite; to me, scripted television has never done anything this enthralling.

Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it enthralling, but it sure took reality television into a zone it is designed never to enter: reality. The obvious goal of the fantastically successful Bravo series – a personal addiction to which I blame entirely on Aaron – is to create petty squabbles between rich, pampered 113923328women, preferably about inane things like where Lisa Vanderpump will hold her daughter’s bachelorette party in Las Vegas. The second feature is classic Depression era porn: such fantastic obscene luxury and wealth paraded like a 1930s movie set in aristocratic New York apartments with massive sweeping staircases and near-mandatory black tie.

But on the Beverly Hills season, two things actually happened beyond orchestrated pissing matches. First, one of them was clearly on some sort of drugs and was deteriorating in front of our eyes. Second, and much more dramatic, one of the more fragile of the golden female parakeets got progressively more disturbed and panic-stricken and volatile.

Her husband, a very tightly wound and humorless executive, gave me the creeps from the start. And then halfway through this season, in one compelling scene, in a conversation in which Taylor demanded total honesty from her friends about their views of her increasingly unraveling personality, one of them blurted out that she had already told the group that her spouse was beating her, even breaking her jaw. Suddenly, the subtext became text.

Bravo clearly panicked. Reality shows are not supposed to be about reality. There’s usually more reality in scripted sitcoms and cartoons. So they removed any footage they might have had revealing the abuse, kept the sub-plot off-stage, built tension, and then simply cut the period after Taylor finally quit her marriage after one last bruise on her face and her husband committed suicide. We got a bewildering swift mention of the suicide in the beginning of the final episode before we got on to the more serious question of whether the outside air-conditioning was sufficient for a Beverly Hills marriage tent.

But then we had the first of a three-part reunion. It pole-axed me. They read aloud some of the truly horrific texts Taylor’s clearly disturbed husband had sent his wife on her birthday. The emotional abuse in the words was somehow more upsetting than the off-stage physical threats and bruises. It reflected what was a poisonous, awful, destructive marriage – the kind that liberalized divorce laws saved so many women from. And then Taylor spoke these words (I paraphrase):

I almost wanted him to hit me during these fights just to get it over with.

It was the reallest moment I have ever witnessed on reality television. It gave you a glimpse into the mindset of battered wives in abusive relationships and marriages – and the living hell that follows them every day. So why on earth go on a reality show? The wife suggested that she did it in order to stop the abuse – to get a third party to intervene and understand. The husband’s motive? I have no idea. But being a wife-beater on national television must have been an ordeal. But here’s what’s unforgivable: they have a 5-year-old daughter exposed to all of this, a daughter who was with her mother when they found her father’s body: “She knew something was bad. The first thing she said was, ‘Did Daddy do something dumb?'” Armstrong recalled.

I find marital abuse so horrifying I cannot express my feelings. That simple sentence – “I almost wanted him to hit me during these fights just to get it over with” – stuck with me for days. The show trod a very fine line between brutal exploitation of these people’s lives and absurd glorification of them.

I think it’s pretty clear at this point that the combination took one life, arguably saved another, and took on a toll on a five year old whose longterm consequences we will never know. Pray for her.

(Photo: Kennedy Armstrong, Taylor Armstrong and Russell Armstrong attend the Lollipop Theatre Networks 3rd Annual Game Day at Nickelodeon Studios on May 7, 2011 in Burbank, California. By Todd Williamson/Getty.)